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Topic - Rock Climbing and Spirituality

rtinma - on 21 Dec 2013

I wondered whether anyone would like to comment on their understanding or experience of the spirituality of climbing. We often talk about the physicality and the mental discipline needed, but many climbers also talk about their experience of being in the moment or touching something deeper that imparts some meaning to life.
As a focus for discussion, you might like to read the accompanying text.

“Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven”
Othello Act 1:3

Rock Climbing and the Spirituality of Sport

I came to climbing late, when my son needed a belayer. Within months I was hooked. What is it about climbing that captures the mind and imagination so powerfully? There is the physicality, the adrenaline rush, the calmness overcoming fear, the satisfaction of reaching the top after an epic struggle, the cameraderie and adventure, coping with all kinds of weather conditions, enjoying all kinds of landscape from crag to sea cliff, sculpted boulder to clean-cut arete. There are so many dimensions which have been well documented in word and image, but there is one undercurrent that also fascinates me and fuels my enjoyment of climbing, and that is the spiritual dimension.

If climbing were simply a physical activity, we might be satisfied with our regular workout down at the indoor climbing wall. While it is enjoyable to climb indoors, most climbers long to go outside. There is something about grappling with the shapes and textures of rock, being part of a landscape that over millennia has been shaped by the carving of glaciers and the attrition of wind and rain, that engages what is deepest in us whether we call it our spirit or our soul. Climbing also has an aesthetic appeal, especially here in Yorkshire, where places like Brimham Rocks are sculpted into shapes that inspired artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth


This isn’t a new phenomenon. You can trace its origins to the Romantic poets who rebelled against the cultural orthodoxies to find spiritual fulfillment in the landscape of the lakes, or the awe-inspiring sublimities of the Alps. Poets and painters made pilgrimages to the vertiginous Alpine passes for inspiration. The Romantic spirit carried over into the explorations by members of the Alpine Club, and the writings of John Muir who travelled to the Sierra in 1868, moving from his Presbyterian background to discover a new religious dimension in the contemplation of the soaring walls of Yosemite. "No feature here seems more wonderful than the Cathedral itself, a temple displaying Nature's best masonry and sermons in stones." In his ramblings through the Sierras, he was also a pioneer of rock climbing. ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’ and other writings capture the spiritual heart of rock climbing and mountaineering that continues in the writings of many contemporary climbers who strive to find a language for their spiritual experience.

Few climbers would claim to be religious, and many climbers would want to focus more on the practicalities and technicalities of climbing. But some might agree that what impels them to climb is a combination of the mental discipline, the physical flow of movement and the spiritual experience of being taken out of oneself in focussing on the sequence of moves, concentrating all one’s energies of body, mind and spirit on that moment of overcoming the crucial difficulties whether it is 3 or 30 or 3000 metres above the ground.


In my own brief and limited experience of climbing, I find that the discipline and focus required is akin to that of prayer. Climbing has become something of a prayerful activity creating a sense of being part of something bigger and more beautiful. As a Vicar I enjoy both worship and climbing; an ideal Sunday would be spent at St Helen’s in the morning and St anage in the afternoon! Each activity can be enjoyable as well as serious, light-hearted as well as committed. I believe that the same spirit you experience worshipping in a building can be found climbing at a crag, and that God's spirit permeates all matter, including the matrix of rock.


In the past some have separated body and spirit into separate entities, whereas in my view they are interwoven. This isn’t some new version of muscular Christianity, but a conviction that spiritual reality can be apprehended in many different ways by all kinds of people everywhere.

As well as the generous spirit of co-operation and encouragement you find when you go out climbing, one of the aspects you often discover in climbers you meet or read about is their humility. The Biblical proverb can be readily applied to climbing: “Pride comes before a fall, but humility comes before honour”. Humility is a vital quality to have when faced with a challenging route or a daunting problem.


With climbing as with many sports or outdoor activities, in stretching our minds and bodies to the limit, we can discover in ourselves deeper spiritual resources that nourish us and make of our lives something even more beautiful and worthwhile.

Rupert Martin, December 2013
Post edited at 11:04
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